Every driver that takes the green flag in the Nextel Cup Series dreams of being a contender for one of the dozen spots that will eventually move into the championship round of 10 races known as the Chase. In reality all but a handful of those spots have already been clamed by the top teams that consists of the usual lineup of drivers from the powerhouse organizations of Hendrick, Childress, Roush and Gibbs.
Whether you are a fan of the Chase format or not, one thing for sure – it does keep the interest in the sport on a higher level at the time of year when many of the teams that are now fighting for one of the highly sought after spots would already begin looking forward to next year. Jeff Gordon has definitely been the dominant driver so far this season and has built a 242-point lead over second-place driver Matt Kenseth with the point differential to the 12th spot being 663 points.
Even though only 14 races have gone into the books so far this season, the cushion Gordon has already built would be hard for all but a few to overcome and make a tight race for the title if the series was still being contested under the pre-Chase rules. If nothing else, the Chase does allow more teams to stay in contention for a shot at running for the title which in return keeps more fans interested in the sport during the summer months when the sport has to compete with many other outside activities.
The Chase has indeed done what it was intended but all you have to do is take a look back at the season Mark Martin is having to see there may be a flaw or two in the system. There is no reason to believe that NASCAR thought when it introduced the Chase that a driver that has sat out three of the first 14 races would be in the top 12 heading into the summer stretch of the season.
There is no questioning Martin’s ability behind the wheel of a race car and the year that he has put together – or should I say part-time year he has put together – has been just short of phenomenal. Although he has yet to make a trip to victory lane this season, in his 11 starts he has finished in the top 10 seven times with his worst finish of the year a 17th at Richmond, which has him sitting in the 12th spot in the standings. His part-time schedule has him ranked higher than 20 other drivers that have competed in every race this season, and on the earnings side of the sport he has won more money than four drivers in the top 10.
Martin came over to Ginn Racing this year after spending the last 19 with Roush-Fenway Racing. During his time with Roush he put together up some Hall of Fame-type numbers that featured 35 wins and four runner up finishes in the final point standings.
Those numbers were put up while driving full time in a Ford and now he is still putting up the same type of numbers while campaigning only a part-time schedule behind the wheel of a Chevrolet. His plans coming into the season were to run around 22 races, but he has since added three more races which include the return trips to Pocono and Dover as well as the September race at Richmond, which just happens to be the last race to determine which 12 drivers makes the Chase.
When he isn’t behind the wheel of his Army-sponsored Chevy, he is tutoring his replacement, Regan Smith, who has filled in the three races that Mark has sat out. Smith has also run the full Busch Series schedule and his sixth-place position in the point standings is the highest among non-Cup drivers in the series.
Smith’s progress has Ginn adding races to his schedule for the remainder of the season, but the company knows that its future lies in the hands of Martin who may just make NASCAR rethink its rules for making the Chase. The odds are still against him but the results he has been able to post so far this season have the powers that-be in Daytona holding their breath. Count me as one of those fans that would love to see Mark get one more chance at a title.
Race Preview – Event: Citizens Bank 400. Track: Michigan International Speedway (2-mile D-shaped oval, 18 degrees of banking). Date: June 17, 2 p.m. TV: TNT. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Kasey Kahne.